William J. Crowe Jr., the Navy admiral who held the nation’s top military job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the Cold War neared its end and who in retirement publicly criticized military and presidential decisions, died of cardiac arrest Thursday at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. He was 82.
Crowe, a nonconformist whose background combined political skills with military experience, led American troops through crises ranging from the 1986 air raid on Libya to the showdown with Iran over control of the Persian Gulf. He also shortened the military chain of command, broke down interservice rivalries and developed an unprecedented relationship with the head of the Soviet military that helped prevent military confrontations between the two superpowers.
Crowe also quickly defused a tense situation with an immediate apology in 1988 after a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf mistook a jetliner for an Iranian F-14 attack fighter and blew it out of the sky, killing 290 civilians.
Those performances and others led the New York Times to call him “the most powerful peacetime military officer in American history.”
One of the few joint chiefs who had never led his own service branch, Crowe was appointed by President Reagan in 1985. He declined a request from President George H.W. Bush to serve a second four-year term.
Crowe made his retirement years strikingly public. He condemned the military’s anti-gay bias and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the first officer of his stature to do so. He criticized the buildup to the 1991 Gulf War, endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton when others questioned his lack of military credentials, served as chairman of two boards charged with investigating the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, then warned about insecure U.S. embassies a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Three years ago, Crowe was among 27 retired diplomats and military commanders who publicly said the administration of President George W. Bush did not understand the world and was unable to handle “in either style or substance” the responsibilities of global leadership.
Unlike most four-star admirals, Crowe had not often served at sea; he spent much of his career steering around the Capital Beltway and academia. That experience proved more than adequate preparation for dealing with the Soviets at the end of the Cold War. Crowe made friends with the Soviet Union’s chief of staff, Sergei Akhromeyev, and they signed a breakthrough agreement to avoid military accidents when U.S. and Soviet forces operated close to each other.
Crowe said the most crucial event of his chairmanship was when he told Reagan that military leaders strongly opposed a proposal Reagan had made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all ballistic missiles in 10 years. Those missiles were the backbone of the U.S. submarine- and land-based missile deterrent.
“If he had heard my remarks, it was not obvious to me,” Crowe wrote in “The Line of Fire” (1993). But Reagan’s proposal disappeared without a trace.
In a 47-year military career, Crowe commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East, was the commander in chief of NATO forces in southern Europe and led the nation’s largest military operation in terms of geography, the U.S. Pacific Command. He was also chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Clinton.
Born in La Grange, Ky., Crowe was raised in Oklahoma. After a year at the University of Oklahoma, he headed to the U.S. Naval Academy, where his classmates in the Annapolis Class of 1946 included future leaders President Carter, Vice Adm. James Stockdale and CIA chief Stansfield Turner.
Chafing under the academy’s discipline, he nevertheless excelled academically. He eventually also earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in political science from Princeton University and began his slow and often frustrating rise up the naval chain of command.
In 1994, Clinton appointed him ambassador to Britain, a job he held for three years.
After returning to the United States, Crowe divided his time between teaching at the University of Oklahoma and studying military issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He also ran the nation’s only licensed manufacturer of anthrax and rabies vaccine, BioPort Corp.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Clinton in 2000.
Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Shirley Grennell Crowe; three children; and four grandchildren.